“Then he picked up the pen and said softly, but clearly, “The first sentence of our first card will read: Mother! The Führer has murdered my son.”….At that instant she grasped that this very first sentence was Otto’s absolute and irrevocable declaration of war, and also what that meant: war between, on the one side, the two of them, poor, small, insignificant workers who could be extinguished for just a word or two, and on the other, the Führer, the Party, the whole apparatus in all its power and glory, with three-fourths or even four-fifths of the German people behind it. And the two of them in this little room in Jablonski Strasse.”
First and foremost this is an absolutely captivating novel. As exciting in its choreography of brilliantly sustained dramatic tension as the best thriller. What it lacks in artistry is made up for by its streamlined vitality and the pulsing urgency of its narrative. There’s something Dickensian about this energy, just as there’s something Dickensian about its characters, all of whom are exaggerated, even caricatured but who nevertheless are always large and vivid with humanity. The Nazis too are powerfully caricatured. At one point a Nazi character says, “I don’t care about emotions. I’d rather have a proper ham sandwich than all the emotion in the world.” This statement is very much in keeping with Nazi priorities within the parameters of the novel where not only the banality of evil is brilliantly dramatised but also the banality of good.
Alone in Berlin is based on a true story. Otto and Anna Quangel in the novel are based on Otto and Elise Hampel who, to begin with, are not by any means hostile to the National Socialists. This changes when Elise’s brother is killed early in the war. The Hampels now begin leaving hundreds of postcards all over Berlin calling for civil disobedience. In the novel it is the death of Otto and Anna’s son that sparks the change of stance towards the Nazis. Otto, a foreman in a furniture factory that soon will be turned over to making coffins, is provoked into resistance. He spends his Sundays writing anonymous postcards against the regime and dropping them in the stairwells of city buildings. “Mother Don’t give to the Winter Relief Fund! – Work as slowly as you can! – Put sand in the machines! – Every stroke of work not done will shorten the war!”
The overriding and unanswerable question about the Nazis remains how did it happen? How did an entire nation allow themselves to be swept up in a tsunami of racial hatred and vengeance? We’re usually told there was nothing one individual could do to oppose this orchestrated regime of terror. The brilliant achievement of this novel is to show how two simple working class people did oppose the Nazis, but, from every practical point of view, in an utterly futile manner. The postcards they wrote – lacking any intellectual sophistication and often containing grammatical errors and misspellings – were almost all immediately handed in to the Gestapo. They terrified anyone who had the bad luck to stumble across one of them. They did no political or military damage whatsoever. This husband and wife were risking their lives for, what in practical terms, was an utterly futile commitment to a series of all but useless gestures. Anna herself questions the “smallness” of the gesture but Otto points out that, if caught, they will pay with their lives and no one can sacrifice more than her own life. Fallada’s great triumph is to show us that their actions, in the sphere of ethics, were far from futile. They acted in accordance with conscience, to preserve their moral integrity even though they knew that to preserve their self-respect would mean losing their lives. Otto’s moment of triumph comes at his (sham) trial when he stands up to the infamous real life Nazi judge most famously portrayed in the film White Rose. Although Otto doesn’t believe in God what he does is as much a religious as a political act. He is acting as though his every gesture is being monitored by a moral overseer.